Art: Written Word

Grey And Chromed ~/~ Breakaway

Rain. Why is it always rain? Cara did her best to ignore it, though the autonomic heat regulators in her body were off -- it wouldn't do to be letting off a column of steam. No, not tonight. Years of hidden practice, training, and augmentation all led down to this. It had to be perfect. So she waited in the cold with nothing but a greasy tarp to cover her, rumpled folds breaking up her outline as she lay on the roof, waiting for revenge.

She had learned about the Sentinels when she was five. The playground was sparse, that day, little boys and girls playing with new variations on the oldest toys. A smiling man in suit and tie, luxurious long coat draped over one arm, down on his haunches as he talked to her about her digigotchi. Though the intricacies of quantum-neural gel were lost on her at the time, she did know her digi was loaded with a Zeira. Zeira were dumb things, that spoke mostly nonsense, though they were easy enough to feed and care for -- the perfect first digital pet for a young girl. She thought it boring, though she'd never had the heart to erase it and start over. The man smiled as she told him all this in her innocent littlegirl way, the oblong electronic device dangling from one hand and chirruping away.

How, he asked, would she like a stage II Kenton digi? He had one, he said, in the glovebox of his car, that his own little girl had outgrown. Kentons were the best of the digis. They could learn english and play games and everything -- only one digi in maybe twenty grew up to be a Kenton. She pouted. Daddy said never to go off with strangers, she said. He smiled and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

That was when she saw the angel. His body was the color of brushed aluminum, with great folding wings tucked closely behind his back. One hand was wrapped tightly around the nice man's throat.

"You shouldn't talk to strangers, Little One," the Angel said, his voice gruff, "Not everyone is as nice as they act." Then, to the man, "I need to talk to you. Over there." He gestured, indicating an alley. The nice man nodded slightly, making strange noises in his throat. The Angel strode off, dragging the nice man with him.

"I wonder who that was," she said, mostly to herself.

"Brrrrrochizeeee," the digi chirruped from her hand. If it had any further thoughts, it kept them to itself.

Later, when she told her parents about it, they actually believed her. Mommy had given Daddy a worried look. Daddy looked pleased. "I told you. I told you he wasn't the Kevorkian type," he said to Mommy, nodding.

That Christmas she recieved a gift in the mail -- a little enamel painted pin in the shape of a shield, with a pair of stylized angel wings on it. She wore it always.

Growing up remained suspiciously uneventful, and that young Cara was never picked on by bullies, or offered drugs of any kind, never struck her as particularly odd. She kept company mostly with the overachievers of her schoolmates, a function of her good grades. She was one of that strange group that was driven, seemingly from birth, to succeed. She thought she glimpsed her Angel from time to time, though never anything conslusive. The whole thing seemed terribly romantic to her. She thought often of being a Sentinel herself, one day.

It would not be until years later that she would think of who her guardian might be. It was in the course of doing a middle school paper on China that she came upon the truth. She asked her father if great-grandpa had been involved in the war. Her father had nodded slowly. He had. In fact, he had been involved at the height of the war, when things had been at their darkest. He gave up everything for his country, suffering them to take his body apart like a machine, slow-growing traces in his mind with patient nanite laborers. He lay in a military hospital that was more like a factory with hundreds of other young men while they worked patiently to install neuroregulatory systems and the newly invented quantum neural gel that would run them, into tiny bunkers deep in his brain.

And when they were done, they had turned him into a tank. Others became aircraft, or low-orbit high-mobility recon satellites that could dodge laser fire, but great-grandpa had become an anti-infantry tank, slung with twin gatling guns and four independent treads that would allow him to cross nearly any terrain. He was gifted with backup systems that kept him alive even when half a dozen different exoskeletons had been shot out from under him. He was an immortal killing machine, responsible for quite possibly thousands of enemy kills.

When it was all over, they sent him home in an OD green crate labeled, "#10632459" only to hook him up to a high capacity network monitor for the next ten years, maintaining the Army's data security and patiently waiting for the technology that kept him alive to declassify enough for him to return to civilian life.

In a lasting testament to the validity of the Turing Test, it was during that long stint in the Army that he fell in love, with a young data entry clerk named Private Margaret Stillman. He often managed a chat window with her in his idle moments, savoring her wry sense of humor and the strange, no-nonsense compassion she exuded.

When he was finally free of his job with the army, he split 10 years worth of unspent paychecks between a new cybernetic body for himself, a house, a ring, and having his original DNA spliced into living sperm. It was hardly the stuff of Harlequin romance novels, but it was a beginning.

And however it had begun, great-grandfather's marriage lasted. His enhanced cybernetics and computer interfacing skills made him a highly sought after quantity in the private sector. His family grew large as he and his beloved Margaret grew old, though he had to go in for yearly cosmetic alterations to keep pace with her. It foreshadowed a situation too grim for him to think about seriously, or often.

His immortality had turned it's ugly side to the light just after Cara was born. Her family went to visit them at great-grandfather's behest, only to find Margaret gently laid out on the bed, having passed peacefully in her sleep. Great-grandfather was nowhere to be found, his bank account emptied. One of Cara's uncles believed he'd gone to find someone capable of ending it all for him, finally disassembling all the Army had built within his skull, but Cara's father thought otherwise. He insisted, loud and often, that great-grandfather hadn't been "the Kevorkian type". The old man was just too damn mean to die, he joked.

It was a little too close to the truth to be funny.

Once she knew the truth, Cara's attitude about her Sentinel soured. This was no Angel from above. After a certain age being stalked, no matter how benign the stalker, no longer holds any appeal. Towards the end of high school she found herself seeking trouble, though it somehow always evaded her.

By the time she escaped to college, as far from home as she could get, Cara had matured into a fierce woman, always pushing, always testing. She changed her name, changed her appearance, changed her style. Anything to get away. And it seemed to have worked. After a few scary near-misses, including a mugging outside a nightclub, she knew she had made it. She had broken away. She was finally free, even if freedom meant failure.

And with her new freedom, she settled down. Got back to her studies, slowly but surely reconquered her abandoned life. She even fell in love with a fellow student at university -- John. His quick smile and quiet confidence made her feel at home for the first time in years.

Under the tarp, in the rain, she shook her head, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Now she was the protector. She was the Sentinel. She put her eye to the high power scope of her .50 BMG rifle, awaiting her target. He would have to stop by his rooftop eyrie to recharge soon, the last couple days of rainy weather making solar power problematic. She'd done her best to manipulate him, keeping his attention below the cloud layer so he couldn't recharge. Her patience would soon pay off. She thought of what had happened to John, her jaw clenching.

The target landed on the roof of the building. She thumbed on the fuzzy logic system in the scope and waited for it to make a recommendation based upon the distance and wind speed. John had just been what his friends called him, of course -- she thumbed off the safety and took up the slack first stage of the trigger -- most people had trouble pronouncing Guangxing, after all. So he always said, "I'm Guangxing Li -- just call me John" with that sudden smile of his. Inside the scope a red dot appeared a foot above the Angel's shoulder -- where to aim if she wanted to hit his head. Poor John --the police had found him just after her Sentinel had, his head crushed, the words, "DIE CHINK DIE" carved on his chest in crude block letters. The odd footprints leading away from the body stopped in the middle of a field, as if the assailant had suddenly taken to the air. She remembered standing over the coroner's table in shock, John's ring on her finger and his baby just beginning to grow in her belly. What lengths would her Angel go to protect his bloodline? What lengths would *she* go to?

The BMG went off with a sound reminiscent of worlds colliding. She chambered another round, though there was no need, and watched dispassionately as the chrome angel fell first to it's knees, then forward onto its chest. As she let out a shuddering sigh, she realized it was all over. A surprising sense of emptiness came over her. What next?

She knew, somewhere out in the world her son was living, just barely old enough to be on his own, really -- raised in secret, on the run, she hadn't been able to give him much. She could go to protect him. She could, but would not; she loved him enough to let him make his own mistakes.

This story is Copyright © 2001 and is reprinted with permission.